McPhee says:

“Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? . . . You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. . . . Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations and other impediments along the way.”

John McPhee, “Omission,” The New Yorker, Sept. 14, 2015, pp.42-49, at 44.

Follow-up to OneNote/Evernote/Scrivener/Zotero question

I’m grateful to everyone who commented.  It was helpful to hear from real people.  Nonetheless, I’m just not seeing what these programs can do for me that I can’t already do with Word, Excel, Adobe Acrobat, and my computer’s Search function.

It sounds like what a lot of people like is the bibliography capabilities of these programs.  Bibliography is the least of my worries.  Having graduated from college before the advent of the word processor, I long ago developed my own methods for keeping track of the books and articles I read.  Compared to hand-writing entries on index cards and re-typing whole pages when the mistakes became too prolific to keep applying Wite-out, changing MLA format to Chicago style is a trivial matter.

I can also take notes on PDFs using Acrobat, and copy those notes into files in Word.  And Word allows me to paste in snippets cut from pictures of manuscripts.

Dropbox allows the same material to appear on multiple devices, with fewer privacy-compromising issues than OneNote.

I can see how a certain kind of mind would love electronic notecards or corkboard, something that looks like the bits of paper but can be searched electronically.  It sounds cool.  But.  Maybe it’s my age, or maybe some other element of my mental makeup, but that makes me totally crazy.  I want either paper or a tidy typed list or paragraph onscreen.

Any operating system worth its salt allows a user to create as many folders as she likes, into which PDFs, scans, pictures, notes, and screenshots can be saved in whatever combination seems appropriate.  The search function allows searching within files as well as for file names.  This is the 21st century: we have optical character recognition (at least in modern fonts; it sure would be nice to have a program that can read medieval chancery hand).  Many documents in different programs can be open at the same time, and with a large enough monitor, or multiple monitors, they can all display at once.  Sir John even has a nifty utility that allows him to toggle between different desktop displays (so he can have, say, four windows with different programs quartering his monitor, and then with one click have four completely different ones appear).  I don’t actually want that much going on at once, but he could make it happen for me if I wanted.  He could also write me a fancier search program if I knew what I needed.

And there’s the real problem.  What I want is a way to make thinking easier.  Remember my man John McPhee?

“Each of those . . . structures was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. . . . The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.

“The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common.  They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative.  So I always rolled the platen and left blank spaces after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology.  After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size.  If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders.”

Even the computer program that he eventually got to do some of this work for him was based on his own coding process.  A programmer talked to him for a long time before working out how to write a program that would simplify the sorting of the notes.  But the codes are the hard part.  It doesn’t help to search for everything to do with, for instance, the process of making cheese, if you don’t want to write a whole section of your essay (or chapter, or book) on cheese-making.  If the cheese-making process is providing the chronological structure of an essay about Cheese in Chaucer, then your codes need to indicate that Step One (milk the cow) goes with the widow in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and Step Two (add rennet) goes with the alchemical processes of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, and so on.

Getting everything in one place is the easy part.  It’s breaking it apart again that is difficult.

As Susan observed in comments to the McPhee post referenced above, “McPhee’s structure is part of the work.”  That is, writing for humanists means discovering the relationships between the parts of your work; the structure is not standard (introduction, methods, results).  Working through all this shows me that there are ways I could make things a little easier on myself.  I could make better use of folders, and more use of Excel.  But in the last analysis, what I really need to do is think, and there aren’t really any shortcuts for thinking.

Dammit.

OneNote/Evernote question

As I’m thinking about organizing Stuff, I’m also thinking about organizing Ideas.  I’m supposed to be writing this book (oh, lordy, how did it get to be more than 4 years later?), though during the last few months I’ve been wrapping up other projects in order to clear the decks for it.  There are words written and bibliography assembled, and yet I’m still, I think, at a relatively early stage in the process.  So this might be the point at which to tackle some new technology that could make the whole thing easier.

If it would make it easier.

Sometimes I think I might be better off just to assemble all my bits and pieces into boxes, and spread papers out across the floor, a la the early John McPhee.  I’m visual and tactile and it helps to spread things out.  On the other hand, if I wind up with a silo’s worth of material (like John) that could get messy.

I’ve found some posts online raving about Evernote and OneNote, but these are often by fiction writers (“It helps me keep track of my characters!”—not my problem) or by people who are teaching undergrads to organize their research papers, or else obviously by marketing people who say “it’s fantastic!!11!!” but omit anything useful about how the program works and why you might actually want it.

What about you, scholarly readers who write scholarly books?  How do you organize your sources and notes?  Are there programs you would recommend?  If you have either advice or warnings, I’d be glad to see them left in comments.

Thank you kindly.

MMP news

The limb of the Octopus that I lopped off and sent out last winter (that is, the MMP-3) has found a home.  Minor revisions, but hey, what new home doesn’t need a lick of paint and some repairs?

MMP-1 is still being brooded over by a dragon who may or may not admit it to his hoard (ack, mixed metaphor: well, let’s say I gilded the octopus-leg before trying to tempt the dragon with it).

For about a month, the MMP-2 has appeared to be two paragraphs and a round of proofing away from being offered to another dragon.  Once I get the K’zoo paper wrestled into submission, I’ll do that gilding and see if I can find a thief to sneak it into the draconian lair.

McPhee had it right

“You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were.”

It’s not just that classes are about to start and I feel like I have at least two full-time jobs, between work and new-house stuff.

My initial model for blogs was “newspaper” or maybe “newspaper columnist,” with a side order of personal journal.  One just keeps writing, because there is always new news, different people seeking advice, new events one needs to process.  But I think I was wrong about that model.  Some blogs, including mine, are books.  They come to an end.  To continue writing past the end is to repeat oneself.  That’s what I’m doing.  My real conclusion is probably back a few pages.

Some books have sequels, so I won’t say I’ll never be back.  And you’ll probably see me in other people’s comments threads, from time to time.  But I am going to be taking a break, possibly a permanent one.

So, writing group members and other readers, fare you well.  May your students be bright, your editors insightful, and your administrators efficient.  (Similar good wishes to non-academic readers, though I’m not sure how to phrase such wishes in parallel to the academic version).  Keep calm, and write on.

He’s back!

John McPhee returns in the April 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, writing about drafts, writerly moods associated with drafts 1-4, and searching for le mot juste.

“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall.  Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft.  With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus.  Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. . . . What I have left out is the interstitial time.  You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside.  You get in your car and drive home.  On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words.  You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem.  Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it.  In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists.  Until it exists, writing has not really begun.” (33)

This is quoted from a note to his daughter, Jenny, so I feel I should not quibble over word choices, but I will anyway: “knit at”?  Can you “knit at” something?  I suppose if I had a really expressive, aggressive knitter in the front row of my class, I might feel she was “knitting at” me, with more vigorous clicking of needles, when I said something she objected to.  Do any of my knitting readers “knit at” speakers in faculty meetings, for instance, if you knit in such circumstances?

I thought this “awful blurting” notion sits a little oddly with the careful organizing detailed in the January piece, on structure.  But on second thought, it sounds like it’s a close relative of my “focused freewriting.”  When I know I need a section on a  particular topic, I will “just write” about that topic, without worrying about the logic and structure of that section.  But it does need to be about that topic, not the broader sort of just-keep-writing freewriting.  McPhee plans his structure, and even starts with the first sentence, and then has to bring the writing into congruence with the structure and opening.

I notice also the degree of focus assumed here: that a writer has two or three hours a day to write*, and more time for thinking in a back-of-the-mind sort of way about what one has written.  Many of the activities in which professors engage can be inimical to developing good prose (reading lots of student papers or decanal announcements or committee reports, for example).

*Luxury! we wrote a book in ten minutes a day, licking the typewriter keys clean at the bottom of a lake—we ‘ad to write on recycled plastic bags—and when we were done our department chairs assigned us to the assessment committee that met three times a week for four hours at a stretch for a full year.

Working out from the middle

I knew I wasn’t John McPhee.

I have no idea what my first sentence is going to be, or the last.  The MMP-1 is taking shape from the middle section outward.  Its shape is an hourglass.

At this point, I’m not sure what I have said about it here and what has been in comments at the spring writing group’s sites, but sometime in January, I believe, I meant to write 3-4 sentences to place-hold an idea for later and wound up with nearly 900 words.  I sat with them for awhile, and decided they were the center section of MMP-1.  Knowing that, I knew what would be in the first part of MMP-1, and what would be in the third part.

Then I took a wild guess at proportions.  The middle section looked like being 3-5 paragraphs, so let’s just say 3 paragraphs each of introduction and conclusion, and 12 paragraphs each of parts I and III.  I listed the topics that seemed to belong in parts I and III, winding up with 10 for one and 11 for the other.  I wrote topic sentences for each topic, a few here, a few there.

So now I have an outline with a well-developed center section, which I gave to a real-life reader yesterday.  It’s possible that some paragraphs will subdivide or combine in the process of writing, but I’m used to that, and I am happy with the frame I have constructed.  I think this will work well.

Anyway, work on this has been one reason I haven’t been posting much lately.  I’ve been very focused on writing, even though most of the work has been thinking and I have little to report in the way of word count.  Writing 3-4 sentences on a good day doesn’t sound like a lot.  But if they’re the right sentences, they get me a long way.

I’d like to know what the intro and conclusion will look like, but since this piece has grown from the middle, I figure the opening and closing will be the last things I write, this time.

As McPhee says, though, every piece is new; there’s no square 2, just square 1 squared and cubed, so maybe someday I will write an essay that starts from its first sentence.

Et toujours McPhee

“Where to end a piece?  As noted above, I usually know from the outset what the last line will be. . . .  Ending pieces is difficult, and usable endings are difficult to come by.  It’s nice when they just appear in appropriate places and times. . . . William Shawn once told me that my pieces were a little strange because they seemed to have three or four endings.  That surely is a result of preoccupation with structure.  In any case, it may have led to an experience I have sometimes had in the struggle for satisfaction at the end.  Look back upstream.  If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that.  You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were.”

The New Yorker, January 14, 2013, p. 55.

McPhee, seven: process

“Each of those . . . structures was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. . . . The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.

“The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common.  They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative.  So I always rolled the platen and left blank spaces after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology.  After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size.  If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders.  One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them . . . . If this sounds mechanical, the effect was absolutely the reverse.  If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. . . . The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week.” (50)

The emphases are mine.  The concentrating of data is crucial for me, and I have had trouble allowing myself to do this.  “Just write.”  No.  McPhee admits that the typing of notes could take weeks—“many” of them—and he doesn’t say how long “reading and rereading,” “developing the structure” and “coding the notes accordingly” takes.  The point is that these are a necessary part of the process.  And when he is done, then he is done.  Then he “just writes” whatever section is the job of the day or week.

McPhee, six

Here I’m summing up some ideas about structure.  One that is important to me is the notion that a piece of writing may consist of various set-pieces—the portraits, the chronological episodes, the places where things happen, the revealing anecdotes—linked or juxtaposed.

I’m used to thinking of developing an argument, one logical step leading to the next.  Undoubtedly John McPhee and I work on different kinds of writing, in different disciplines.  I need logic; much as I admire his use of “half an inch or so of white space” (49), academic writing requires that I spell out what he can imply.  Nonetheless, I want to think about how I could use set-pieces: whether I have them, and if so how many, and of what kinds.

It’s freeing to step away from the notion of strict logic.

Some structures McPhee writes about having used: the two-armed structure of his portrait gallery (quoted previously), in which themes gradually converge.  The series of chronologically organized set-pieces hanging from a chronological narrative line.  The spiral, beginning at a point that is not the chronological beginning, and using flashbacks to fill in the earlier events.